Almost all of us are faced with high-stakes decisions nearly every day, no matter our industry or role. Often, we try to create rules to govern future behavior and take the uncertainty out of the decision-making process, but it’s clear to anyone who faces tough decisions on a regular basis that the circumstances and details are different nearly every time, and black-and-white rules rarely lead to optimal choices.
The answer, according to Mike Hayes, former commanding officer of Navy SEAL Team Two and author of Never Enough: A Navy Seal Commander on Living a Life of Excellence, Agility, and Meaning, is to focus on what he calls “how to think,” not “what to think.”
By focusing on the process by which we make decisions, instead of trying to predict the details of any particular high-stakes choice, we can articulate principles that lead to good answers no matter what question we face, and set up our organizations to thrive even through the toughest crises.
According to Mike Hayes, these five ideas can improve our thinking in almost any scenario:
1. All high-stakes decisions are fundamentally the same.
Hayes, who served as director of defense policy and strategy at the National Security Council under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, has people ask him all the time how he managed to move from the military to government to finance, and now to technology, where he currently serves as chief digital transformation officer at VMware. His answer? The playing field doesn’t matter; good thinking is good thinking. “Someone with great intrinsic skills can be put in charge of anything and they will figure it out,” he shares.
2. Get the broadest range of inputs possible
You can’t make decisions alone. You need people around you with the broadest range of experiences possible, so that your blind spots are covered. This is where diversity truly pays off: The more varied the life experiences and points of view of the people in the decision-making bunker with you, the better the ultimate outcome will be. We need to hire people who are not like us. We must embrace differing opinions, not run from them.
3. Emphasize the signal over the noise
You always need to focus on the cost of occupying your attention, or someone else’s. Especially in a crisis, one of the most critical actions is making sure all communication is potentially actionable — will this information mean that someone might do something differently? — rather than just a distraction. Whether a corporate meeting or a combat situation, the question is the same, even though the information is surely very different.
4. The first decision is when to make the decision
How do you really know how much time you have to make a decision? The answer is that you’re looking for the inflection point where it’s more valuable to go ahead and make the decision than to wait for more knowledge. There’s a tradeoff between information and time, and understanding how that graph looks in any particular case is vital.
5. Bring your values to bear in every decision you make
Finally, you need to be able to stand behind every choice you make. Hayes writes about a time when a superior wanted him to send men to a dangerous combat site just to comply with policy, and he said no. “I could have been fired,” he shares, “But I had to act consistently with my values … to live with [my decision] if the worst happened.” Hayes was overruled, and unfortunately, three people in the Afghan partner force working with the SEALs ended up dead as a result of his superior’s decision.
These five principles can help move you from a “what to think” mentality to focusing on “how to think,” and improving the answers that ultimately emerge. It’s a smart way to approach the most important choices we make each day.